Jane Eisner of the Forward puts a Jewish spin on Judith Shulevitz’s recent story in The New Republic on the negative consequences of women having children late in life: Thanks to Jews marrying later and giving birth later, the ”non-Orthodox birthrate in America is far below replacement level,” endangering the future of liberal, egalitarian Judaism.
In this and so much else, most younger Jews in America simply reflect trends in the larger society, where highly educated people are marrying later, giving birth later, and living in a far more pluralistic environment than even a generation ago. This is what we’ve wanted, isn’t it — to be open-minded and accepted, to be integrated into the American mosaic? (Consider what Hillary Rodham Clinton and Joe Biden have in common: Jewish sons-in-law.)But this acceptance — some call it assimilation — comes at a price we are not willing to acknowledge, which I believe endangers the future of egalitarian, progressive American Judaism. And we don’t know what to do. Parents do not want to alienate their children with what may seem like outdated prejudices, while religious authorities, such as they are, are reluctant to judge for fear of rejection.
Jack Wertheimer wrote about low Jewish birth rates a few years ago and essentially blamed liberal rabbis for having rejected “traditional Jewish teachings” in order to ”welcome Jews who live in unconventional family arrangements, and in particular to eliminate any negative judgment of gays and lesbians.”
Eisner turns this around, but comes to a similar conclusion:
We need to figure out how to honor individual choice and the desire to move beyond ghettoization with the communal need to promote marriage as the foundation for a healthy Jewish culture. Perhaps we straight folks can learn something from the gays and lesbians who have fought so bravely for the right to marry — a right, a duty, a joy and a privilege we are allowing to slip away.
In other words, whether you blame gays or straights, the solution lies in the pulpit and the bully pulpit, where rabbis and Jewish communal leaders and Jewish journalists can do a better job of, as Wertheimer puts it, emphasizing “the power of Jewish norms and obligations” when it comes to marrying young, marrying Jews, and having lots of kids.
Blaming Jewish instititutions for undermining Jewish family values always struck me as odd: Try asking the average single person or childless couple how comfortable they feel in suburban synagogues. Despite Wertheimer’s suggestion of a sort of “free to be you and me” Neverland, the average synagogue operates on the assumption that “family” means two spouses with kids.
Our demographic problems didn’t start with liberalism, but the day the first boatload of Jews set foot in America and were given a range of choices about how to live, and whether to live Jewishly at all. Anyone interested in promoting “natalism” among non-Orthodox Jews has to ask how much of these freedoms and choices they are willing to give up, and what structural changes have to be made to make a difference. Otherwise, it’s just hand-wringing.